Amazon deforestation may be worsened by loan policy
Better forest policies would reduce illegal logging in the Amazon
Rhett A. Butler,
May 6, 2007

Brazil could improve sustainable forest management, reduce illegal logging, and perhaps cuts deforestation by introducing coherent policies for timber operations in the Amazon rainforest argues a new paper published in Frontiers in Ecology. However, successful implementation of sustainable timber production will require overcoming significant biological and political hurdles, suggest the authors.

Noting that South American rainforests will continue to be logged for the foreseeable future, the authors, led by Michael Keller of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Puerto Rico, say that the Brazilian government should aim for sustainable timber production, which would provide income for local people while at the same time preserving ecosystem carbon stocks and watershed protection. Doing so will be a challenge, though one that can be surmounted through collaboration between policy makers and biologists.

"Although there are many hurdles ahead, well-designed government programs may be the key to realizing the goal of ecosystem protection through sustainable timber production from natural tropical forests," the authors write. "The challenges to the successful implementation of sustainable timber production programs in South America fall into two broad categories: (1) inherent biological limits related to forest diversity and productivity and (2) economic and policy limitations that control the forest sector."

Keller and colleagues say the biggest biological limitation to sustainable timber harvesting is the high species diversity of the Amazon rainforest. This diversity, which means that desirable timber species are widely dispersed, makes logging more arduous and expensive since skid trails must to built to access each individual tree. The slow growth of tropical hardwoods, which take dozens of years to reach a harvestable size after cutting, further complicates sustainable logging.

Nevertheless, the authors argue that these limitations can be addressed by shifting harvest cycles and educating consumers on unfamiliar species to ensure that the timber wins acceptance in the marketplace.

Bureaucracy: the biggest hurdle

The researchers caution that biological limitations might be the easy part of the solution.

"Policy hurdles may be more difficult to overcome than biological problems," they write.

While the timber industry is important in the Amazon--generating US$2.3 billion of the region's $28 billion in economic activity and 380 000 direct and indirect jobs--it is poorly managed. The authors cite a number of factors holding back more efficient and environmentally sound timber reproduction, including loan policies, poorly articulated laws governing logging, and lack of training.

Loan policy may promote deforestation

Regional loan policy may worsen deforestation in the Amazon by favoring cattle ranching and farming over logging. While logging results in forest degradation and at times leads to deforestation, both cattle ranching and industrial farming result in immediate deforestation. Because even logged forests retain higher levels of biodiversity than either cattle pasture or monocultures, current loan policy effectively reduces species richness in the region.

The researchers say a second problem stems from the difficulty of the timber industry in the Brazilian Amazon to comply with a myriad of government regulations.

"The laws and regulations are complex, so that, in addition to the transaction costs of complying with government bureaucracy, loggers are often faced with the choice of operating illegally or not at all," they write. "Permits from the Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis, the Brazilian federal agency responsible for oversight of logging, [can be] all but impossible to obtain."

The authors imply that poorly articulated laws effectively encourage illegal--hence unregulated--logging. They also report that sustainable forest management in the Brazilian Amazon is hindered by a lack of trained personnel.

"Logging is often conducted in a haphazard manner with little or no planning. This leads to high costs and waste in equipment depreciation, fuel usage, timber recovery, forest damage, and, most importantly, in unsafe working conditions," they write. "Overall, the lack of capital and the precarious regulatory environment leaves the logging sector in the Brazilian Amazon with inadequate technology, renders small- and medium-sized operations unable to take advantage of economies of scale, and promotes ubiquitous illegal operations."

Bringing sustainable forest management to the Amazon

To succeed in bringing sustainable forest management to the Amazon, the government is going to have to improve transparency and reduce the costs of doing business, say the authors.

"The long-term success of the Amazon forest industry requires that loggers have incentives to work, protect, and take care of the forests. In Brazil, such incentives are rare," Keller and colleagues write. "Under a well-managed system, timber concessions can provide a government with revenue and control over the timber industry... A well-managed system of concessions can reduce illegal logging, allow socially equitable access to forests, improve forest management, and encourage the adoption of new technology."

The authors say that a system utilizing private land-holdings of already marginalized forest could be key to slowing deforestation in the Amazon.

"The total smallholder area on one stretch of the Trans-Amazon highway from Marabá to Itaituba, for example, has the capacity to supply 1.75 million [cubic meters] of roundwood per year, or about 6% of the roundwood production in the Brazilian Amazon," they write. "If the timber industry were given incentives, or at the very least had existing barriers removed (eg information, legal title on smallholder lots, government requirements and bureaucracy), then private land use could potentially hold back deforestation and provide an engine for economic development at the frontiers."

But to do this, reform is needed.

"There is a clear need to reduce the costs of doing government business. Land tenure must be better organized and forest management practices should be made accessible to private landowners. The techniques of forest management should be demystified through the provision of information, outreach, and training to loggers. Only when these basic conditions of development are met can the application of ecological and silvicultural knowledge to tropical forests really be effective. Without them, unfettered and unsustainable forest exploitation, whether legal or illegal, will continue to dominate."

Michael Keller, Gregory P Asner, Geoffrey Blate, John McGlocklin, Frank Merry, Marielos Peña-Claros, and Johan Zweede (2007). Timber production in selectively logged tropical forests in South America. Front Ecol Environ 2007; 5(4): 213—216


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Rhett A. Butler, (May 06, 2007).

Better forest policies would reduce illegal logging in the Amazon.